Melting Pot of Cultures: One chicken; two dishes

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One of the most interesting aspects of food is how much it can tell you about a land, a culture and a person. It's the reason I seek out restaurants specializing in multi-cultural foods and why I do the same when searching for new recipes. Food brings people together.

I recently returned from Ireland where I have a long history, as 46 years ago my folks bought a place in County Donegal, in the northwest corner of Ireland. Donegal is generally considered remote even within Ireland. The people I know in Donegal are proud of its rugged beauty and solitude, but it comes with a price. Donegal has few of what could be considered traditional Irish tourist sites and very little industry. Consequently, employment has always been an issue in the hills and glens. When my good friends and neighbors, Micheal and Bridget Coyle, were growing up in the area in the 1950s and '60s, most young men and women had to find work elsewhere, primarily in Scotland. This separated them from their families, as well as a lot of their traditions. One of their traditions was a roast chicken on Christmas Day.

Back to the land wasn't a movement or a choice for residents of that glen in Donegal in those days, it was their reality and really all they or their families had known. It meant hand-churning their own butter. Almost no one had a telephone, very few had cars or refrigerators. It meant having meat as part of a meal was almost entirely restricted to Sundays and special holidays. Therefore, having a traditional roast chicken at Christmas took on an even greater significance.

So, what to do when your loved ones are away working in Scotland during Christmas? You ship them a chicken, of course! The Coyles told me the remaining family members in Donegal would butcher a chicken, lovingly wrap it in brown butcher's paper, tie it with string, seal the knot with red wax and send it to their family working in Scotland. Michael told me it would take about a week for the chicken, with the paper sometimes dripping with blood, to arrive at its destination in Scotland.

"A week?!" I exclaimed. "It would take a week for a raw chicken to arrive in Scotland without refrigeration?!"

Bridget laughed and said, "We didn't care, it was meat!"

I had to remind myself that the average temperature in that temperate part of the world during December is consistently in the low to mid-40s and, more importantly, the Coyles are still here to tell their story. It made me think of how so many of our chickens come from large processing plants and how having so many chickens processed at the same time creates a greater risk of contamination. Also, it can take four to five days for our typical processed supermarket chicken to even reach our meat departments. Having taken all this into consideration; it didn't seem so outrageous after all. Those Christmas chickens weren't "processed," they were butchered one at a time, shipped in a (mostly) 40-to 45-degree environment, were all organic and, to use a current term, were truly farm to table.

Which somehow brings me to what to do with a whole chicken in the summer. Luckily, many years ago I was fortunate enough to attend a live cooking demonstration by the famed cookbook author and chef, Jacques Pepin. His method of poaching a whole chicken is a Chinese method he learned from actor/comedian Danny Kaye, who was an excellent amateur cook specializing in Chinese preparations.

I attended that demonstration in the late 1980s and have used this method ever since at home and in restaurants for chicken salads. It produces consistent chicken meat in which the deficiencies of the white and dark meats are resolved as the dark meat is light and tender, and the white meat is moist and flavorful. The other advantage is that you can continue making a chicken stock once you have taken the meat from the bone and returned the carcass to the poaching liquid.

To recap: An American mutt with a German surname (me) discovered a story in Ireland about chickens being shipped to Scotland and is providing you a Chinese cooking method he learned from a French chef, who learned it from a Jewish American actor/comedian with Ukrainian parentage. It seems only natural to contribute two simple summer recipes with Vietnamese and Greek origins using one poached whole chicken.

It seems food can bring the world together, one chicken at a time.

POACHED WHOLE CHICKEN LA DANNY KAYE

INGREDIENTS:

1 3 1/2 to 4 lb chicken

1 cup sliced onions

1 cup chopped celery

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1 teaspoon salt

2 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

1 whole lemon pricked 6 to 7 times with a fork

DIRECTIONS:

Place the lemon in the cavity of the chicken. The stock is going to be used for a soup containing lemon and it helps in weighing down the chicken during poaching. Place the chicken breast-side down along with the other ingredients in a tall narrow pot so that the chicken fits snugly in the bottom. Fill the pot with water so that the chicken is covered by about an inch. Bring the pot to a gentle boil for 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and let stand for 45 minutes. Remove the chicken from the poaching liquid and return the liquid to the stove, allowing it to come to a simmer. Let the chicken rest for about 10 to 15 minutes and remove the meat from the bones. Discard the lemon and place the chicken carcass back into the simmering poaching liquid and allow to simmer 3 to 4 hours before straining and refrigerating after cooling.

***

VIETNAMESE CHICKEN SALAD (GOI GA)

A simple, fresh variation excellent for a picnic. It can be made with leftover rotisserie chicken, as well. I dress the salad when I get to my destination and allow the flavors to meld for at least 15 minutes.

INGREDIENTS:

For the nuoc mam cham dressing:

3 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (plus lime wedges for serving)

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3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon sugar (preferably Demerara)

1 large garlic clove minced (1 teaspoon)

1 tablespoon peeled fresh ginger minced

Sriracha chili sauce to taste

Add:

2 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil

For the salad:

4 cups finely shredded Napa or green cabbage

2 cups julienned or finely shredded carrot

2 cups (1 bunch) scallions, cut on the bias

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

1/2 cup coarsely chopped mint

3 cups shredded chicken

3/4 cup coarsely chopped unsalted roasted peanuts

Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Whisk all the ingredients together for the nuoc mam cham dressing with the oil, toss with the salad ingredients. Adjust the salt if necessary.

***

AVGOLEMONO SOUP

Enjoy this soup with warmed pita bread, hummus and Kalamata olives warmed in olive oil with lemon peel and garlic cloves for a light summer supper.

INGREDIENTS:

4 cups chicken stock

2 cups cooked white rice or orzo , warmed

2 large egg yolks

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 cup shredded chicken meat (or whatever is left after making the Vietnamese chicken salad)

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill or flat-leaf parsley (and additional for garnish)

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Heat the chicken stock to a simmer. Put the egg yolks, lemon juice and 1/2 cup of the rice or orzo into a blender and blend on low while slowly adding 1 cup of the hot chicken stock. Add this mixture back with the chicken and the remaining rice or orzo to the simmering chicken stock and heat a gentle simmer while stirring consistently. Add the herbs and heat for about one minute more. Avoid bringing the soup to any more than a simmer as the eggs may curdle. Adjust salt and pepper to taste, garnish and serve.


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